Nearly 400 years after it was wrested away, a large portion of one of the most spectacular landmarks in Virginia’s Tidewater region is back in the hands of its original occupants.
In 1649, European settlers, defying the terms of a treaty signed only three years earlier, forced the Rappahannock people off their ancestral lands on what is now Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. The action severed their longstanding connection to Fones Cliffs, a four-mile stretch of sheer rock standing on the northern bank of the river that bears the name of the tribe.
At an announcement April 1 presided over by the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary, officials and local tribal members celebrated the return of 465 acres of Fones Cliffs land to the Rappahannock people.
The Chesapeake Conservancy purchased the tract recently from the Northern Neck Lumber Co. for the discounted price of $4 million, officials say. The group then donated the land to the Rappahannock Tribe, a federally recognized sovereign nation.
The land will be open to the public through an easement granted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The tribe plans to keep much of the site in its natural state except for developing a network of trails and a replica 1500s-era village, where the contemporary Rappahannocks can practice their traditions and educate visitors about their history.
“It’s a big deal for the tribe and a big deal for the landscape of the Chesapeake [Bay],” said Rappahannock Tribe Chief Anne Richardson.
The ceremony marking the acquisition drew several VIPs to Fones Cliffs, including Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe of New Mexico.
“This historic reacquisition underscores how tribes, private landowners and other stakeholders all play a central role in this administration’s work to ensure our conservation efforts are locally led and support communities’ health and well-being," Haaland said.
In recent years, Fones Cliffs has become one of the Chesapeake region’s most hotly contested battlegrounds between developers and conservationists.
The formation lies about 40 miles southeast of Fredericksburg. The white-and-orange face of the cliffs consists of diatomaceous earth that observers say sparkles in the right sunlight. The towering location is rich in wildlife, providing a near-ideal hunting perch for bald eagles. The National Audubon Society has designated the cliffs as part of an Important Bird Area with “global significance.”
“It’s a stunningly beautiful property,” said Joel Dunn, the Chesapeake Conservancy’s president and CEO. “I call it the Yosemite of the Chesapeake.”
Artifacts and historical records draw a strong connection between the Rappahannock people and Fones Cliffs. Before European contact, the Rappahannock established three towns atop the cliffs: Wecuppom, Matchopick and Pissacoack. The newly acquired property encompasses the site of Pissacoack.
During his 1608 exploration of the Bay region, Capt. John Smith fled from the waters fronting Fones Cliffs under a barrage of arrows shot by the Rappahannock. But within a few decades, the English occupation ousted the tribe from this portion of its homeland.
The Rappahannock may have departed Fones Cliffs. But, as Richardson sees it, their relationship with the land remained intact.
“We know the bones of ancestors reside in the ground, and the DNA of the tribe is in that land,” she said, citing recent archaeological surveys conducted by St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Financial support for the land purchase came from the family of William Dodge Angle and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through a grant from Walmart’s Acres for America Program. The tribe plans to place the land in trust with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Conservation interest in preserving Fones Cliffs has ramped up over the past decade amid increasing pressure from developers. Dunn said that the conservancy’s goal is to preserve about 2,000 acres of Fones Cliffs properties.
The group helped facilitate the purchase of one property in 2018. The tract totals more than 250 acres of forests and deep ravines along the cliffs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later acquired the parcel, adding it to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
To the north of that property, though, a 1,000-acre tract remains in limbo. There, the owner, the New York-based Virginia True Corp., initially proposed a luxury golf resort, with 205 homes, 513 multi-family units, 18 cabins and a 116-room lodge.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 2019, making the future of its Fones Cliffs holdings uncertain. Amid those proceedings, the firm has unveiled a new plan for the property: a combination of federally funded housing, a hotel and luxury condos in 10-story towers.
That particular stretch of the cliffs isn’t pristine. Two years before the bankruptcy filing, Virginia True drew ire from environmentalists and fines from state regulators after it illegally cleared 13 acres of trees along the riverbank. A few months later, a portion of the cliff face near that clearing tumbled into the river after several days of rain.
“When that happened,” Richardson said, “it was just appalling. It was an emergency. We had to do something.”
Dunn said that the land returned to the Rappahannock Tribe, on the other hand, has remained largely untouched. Although it was owned by a timber company, the land’s difficult terrain largely kept loggers at bay. As a result, some of the region’s oldest trees can be found growing in its soil, he said.
The land acquisition, Richardson said, will strengthen the tribe’s Return to the River program, which trains their youth in traditional river knowledge. Until now, the tribe’s sole property near Fones Cliffs — but not on its waterfront — was a single acre donated to the Rappahannock people in 2017 by Virginia Warner, daughter of former U.S. Sen. John Warner of Virginia.
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